Finland and Sweden would bring NATO closer to major Russian military bases

  • Sweden and Finland have applied to become NATO’s next members.
  • Admitting Finland would extend NATO’s border with the Kola Peninsula, an important Russian military hub.
  • Russia has spent the past decade modernizing and expanding military bases on the peninsula.

In May, Finland and Sweden jointly submitted their applications for NATO membership, a historic decision prompted by Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Their probable joining of the alliance would put an end to their decades of formal military non-alignment and would reorganize the security environment in Northern Europe.

“Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership is likely to complicate Russia’s military planning, particularly with regard to offensive military operations directed against NATO states in northeastern Europe,” said John Deni, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center and researcher. professor at the Institute for Strategic Studies at the US Army War College.

The addition of Finland would double NATO’s land border with Russia from 750 to 1,600 miles and extend NATO’s border with the Kola Peninsula, a key part of Russia’s security architecture and a region that Moscow considers a military stronghold.

An underwater nest

Russian Navy Kilo-class submarine Severomorsk Murmansk Kola

The Russian Kilo-class submarine Kaluga surfaces during the Navy Day military parade in Severomorsk, July 27, 2014.

Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The Kola Peninsula contains the largest concentration of nuclear weapons in the world. It provides access to the Barents Sea and the North and has the only ports in the Russian Arctic that are ice-free all year round.

The peninsula is home to Russia’s Northern Fleet, which deploys the majority of the country’s nuclear-powered submarines. The fleet is a vital part of Russia’s nuclear triad and second-strike nuclear capability.

In 2020, President Vladimir Putin elevated the Northern Fleet to an independent military-administrative district on the level of Russia’s other four military districts – West, South, Center and East – highlighting the importance of the Kola Peninsula and from the far north to Moscow.

The Kola Peninsula has numerous military bases and installations that support the Northern Fleet and serve as a home base for its operations in the Far North, which NATO officials say is central to the defense of the Russia.

The Northern Fleet’s most formidable assets are its approximately 20 operational submarines, many of which are nuclear-powered. Its mainstays are the fourth-generation Borei-class and Yasen-class submarines.

Yasen submarine of the Russian Navy Kazan

The Yasen-class nuclear submarine Kazan of the Russian Northern Fleet at its base in Severomorsk, June 1, 2021.

Lev FedoseevTASS via Getty Images

The Borei-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines are among the newest in Russia and can each carry 16 ballistic missiles and up to 96 nuclear warheads. Two Borei-class submarines are deployed with the Northern Fleet and three more are under construction and will join the fleet within a decade.

The first Yasen-class nuclear guided-missile submarine was commissioned in 2013 and its latest variant, the Yasen-M, was commissioned last year. The Northern Fleet has two Yasens and three more will eventually join.

The Yasens carry a mix of conventional cruise missiles that can strike land or sea targets – long-range weapons that NATO officials believe Russia would likely use against ports and other infrastructure.

The majority of the Northern Fleet’s nuclear-powered submarines are stationed at Fleet Headquarters in Severomorsk in Kola Bay. There are also submarine bases at Zaozyorsk, which is only about 40 miles from Norway, at Gadzhiyevo on Olenya Bay, at Zapadnaya Litsa and at Vidyaevo.

The Plesetsk Cosmodrome, which houses RS-24 Yars thermonuclear ballistic missile batteries, is also on the peninsula, as are a number of airbases that can accommodate strategic bombers.

Nuclear Support Structures

Severomorsk Kola Russia Northern Fleet navy sailors

A submarine anti-sabotage detachment at the main base of the Russian Northern Fleet in Severomorsk, February 1, 2019.

Lev FedoseevTASS via Getty Images

In 2012, Putin ordered the modernization of Russia’s military arsenal, with priority given to its nuclear weapons. The very high concentration of these weapons in the Kola Peninsula has led to a program of upgrading, expansion and modernization of naval and air facilities in the region.

According to a 2018 review of satellite imagery by The Barents Observer, a Norwegian outlet based a few miles from the Russian border, Moscow is building 50 reinforced weapons bunkers to store long-range nuclear and conventional missiles on the peninsula. of Okolnaya Bay, which is the largest arms depot in northern Russia.

The Russian Defense Ministry is also expanding bases on the Kola Peninsula to better support Borei-class and Yasen-class submarines.

New docking facilities and other infrastructure for submarines and special loading and unloading facilities for nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles are being built at many submarine bases on the peninsula, correcting the operational shortcomings faced by the Soviet-era Northern Fleet.

Russia is also modernizing one of three airbases near Severomorsk. Upgrades to Severomorsk-1 Air Base would improve the Russian military’s awareness of the region and extend its operational reach as the Arctic becomes more accessible.

having cold feet

US Marine Corps Finland F/A-18 fighter jet

US Marine Corps and Finnish Air Force fighter jets over Rissala Air Base in Finland, June 18, 2021.

US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Caleb Steler

Finland and Sweden already cooperate closely with NATO. Both are NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partners, the closest partnership a non-member can have with the alliance, and both are part of the NATO Response Force. NATO membership will deepen their cooperation.

“Russia will likely be concerned about NATO’s proximity to Russian forces on the Kola Peninsula in times of peace and conflict,” Deni said, adding that Finland’s membership could allow NATO ” to improve his knowledge of Russian activities in the Kola Peninsula”.

Despite the peninsula’s importance to Russia, Deni was skeptical that Moscow would need “to increase its military deterrence in the north” if Sweden and Finland joined the alliance.

NATO currently has “a serious lack of offensive-oriented military capabilities and capabilities” in the region, Deni said. “A NATO threat against Russia really does not currently exist in Northern Europe, even if Finland and Sweden are included in the calculation.”

Tank of Swedish Finnish troops

OSCE monitors meet members of a joint Swedish-Finnish brigade during an exercise in Norway in March 2022.

Finnish Defense Forces

“Instead, the threat posed by the West is constantly inflated by the Kremlin to bolster its own position domestically and to justify massive military spending,” Deni told Insider.

Russian military planning for operations in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic would be more complicated if Finland and Sweden joined NATO, as they “might be more willing and able to share information with NATO about Russian activities in these two regions,” Deni said, echoing comments made by General Christopher Cavoli, the top US Army general in Europe.

If Sweden and Finland joined NATO, the alliance would almost completely encircle the Baltic Sea, Cavoli told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 26.

This enclosure would present “a bunch of different dilemmas, almost geometric dilemmas, which Russia doesn’t have right now,” Cavoli said, “so it will be advantageous.”

Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master’s degree in security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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